Sherry has suffered from an image problem in recent years. This fortified white wine from southern Spain is often regarded as being the favoured tipple of elderly women and is frequently produced at slightly awkward, semi-formal gatherings of associates or extended family. However, sherry has far more to offer than the small glasses of warm, sickly sweet liquid so many of us will have endured in the past.
Sherry is a drink which should be enjoyed year round but it is perfect for Christmas. A dry, tangy sherry is wonderful as an aperitif to accompany olives and salty nibbles whilst a sweet cream sherry complements mince pies beautifully. If you have had bad experiences with sherry in the past don’t give up on it – get in a few different bottles for Christmas and experiment with all the different varieties.
Three towns in Andalucía in southern Spain produce the entire world’s sherry. Since the early 1990s no fortified white wine can call itself sherry unless it is made in Jerez, El Puerto de Santa Maria or Sanlucar de Barrameda.
Most sherry is made from Palomino white wine grapes which are grown on the region’s chalky white soil known as albariza. The grapes produce a relatively uninspiring white wine initially which is transformed when the liquid goes into the oak casks. Inside the casks the natural yeast found in the air reacts with the white wine liquid, covering the surface of the wine with a creamy blanket known as flor. This blanket stops the white wine from oxidising and is responsible for the resulting sherry’s ripe and yeasty characteristics. Once this process has completed the producers are left with a dry and flavourful sherry which can either be bottled as it is or can undergo fortification resulting in a sweeter sherry.
The driest sherries are labelled Fino or Manzanilla. Fino is made from the first pressings of the Palomino white wine grapes which have been affected by flor. Fino is very pale in colour and is bone dry and piquant with characteristics of green olives, lemons and yeast. It should be served chilled as an aperitif with nibbles such as crisps, nuts and olives although the Spanish frequently drink Fino sherry with tapas. Manzanilla is an equivalent style of sherry but produced only in Sanlucar de Barrameda. It’s still very dry but can be slightly softer with more characteristics of bread than Fino. Reliable labels of Fino and Manzanilla sherry to look out for include Tio Pepe, Solear, La Gitana and La Ina.
Amontillado is a medium sherry which starts life as a Fino but is fortified to about 17 or 18 per cent, dispersing the flor and allowing the air to get to the white wine liquid. As a result the wine oxidises which gives Amontillado sherry its typical nutty characteristics and amber colour. Amontillado can be variable in quality so stick to reputable labels such as Tio Diego or Del Duque.
Dry Oloroso is a highly aromatic sherry and is arguably the most interesting variety of this type of fortified white wine. It has a rich, raisiny flavour but finishes with a crisp, savoury after taste. A dry Oloroso makes a good accompaniment for cheese.
Sweet sherries are perhaps the style we are most accustomed to and they should be saved to drink with desserts or cake. Good quality sweet and cream sherries are made using Oloroso wine. Pale cream sherries are distinguished by a pale, straw colour and a delicately sweet flavour and are delicious drunk with desserts made with fresh fruit. Richer cream sherries (think Harvey’s Bristol Cream) are best served at room temperature and drunk with luxury cakes. Try a cream sherry at Christmas with a mince pie or slice of Christmas cake.
The very sweetest sherry is Pedro Ximenez or PX. It is relatively rare and made from Pedro Ximenez white wine grapes. It has a thick, almost oily texture and is full of the sweet flavours of raisins and treacle. A bottle of PX would make an indulgent Christmas treat – try pouring over vanilla ice cream for a luxurious dessert.
Although sherry is a fortified white wine don’t try to keep an opened bottle for too long without drinking it. A bottle of dry, pale sherry should be finished within a week or two and the richer, sweeter styles shouldn’t be left more than a few weeks after opening. Try buying a half bottle if you don’t think you’ll get through a full bottle in time although by the time you have offered all your Christmas guests a glass or two it’s unlikely there’ll be much left in the bottle to worry about!
Image by Matt Saunders.